ELIAMEP’s migration research team organized on the 10th of June a workshop titled “LEAVE YOUR MYTH IN GREECE” Networks and Pathways of Seven Important Immigrant Groups in Greece. This workshop was organized under the aegis of the European research project IDEA and aimed to bring together NGOs, local authorities, policy makers, researchers and journalists.

Five original studies referring to seven immigrant groups residing in Greece were presented in the workshop. The three first groups that were discussed were the Poles, the Bulgarian and the Romanian citizens living in the country – the three communities that are now European citizens and are no longer economic migrants, or at least not officially. The choice of these groups was made based on their size (for the Bulgarians and the Romanians) as well as the long duration of their presence in Greece (with regards to Poles).

The research findings showed several common points and some differences. All three populations note that the status of EU citizen made their life in Greece easier as it liberated them from the anxiety and the bureaucracy of the residence permits. Yet, many of the new European citizens are not well aware of their rights and obligations as EU citizens who reside in another member state.

The fact that they are now EU citizens has not changed much in their employment status and in the jobs that are ‘available’ for them. Working women remain trapped in the sectors of cleaning and personal care while men, even though with time they have improved their position and acquired steady jobs with insurance and benefits, they remain in the field of construction and other low skill services. Their employment in catering and tourism appears to be particularly dynamic especially in the rural and touristic areas. It is also noted that paradoxically the acquisition of EU citizenship made their employment conditions more ‘flexible’; they often offer themselves to work uninsured in order to attract or keep a job. Since they no longer need welfare contributions to prove that they are employed and renew their stay permits, they present this to employers as an advantage for employing them. The informal economy and labour market segregation effect is thus stronger than the citizenship status of immigrants from young member states.

The insertion to the EU changed the character of the organizations and unions of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants as well as the relevant offices and services provided to them. While these offices added to their offered services (which originally were mostly related to the stay permits) various legal and financial activities (purchases, sales, investments, inheritance papers), the immigrant associations formed by these three groups are going through a crisis. Either they have declined, as the Polish organizations, or they are becoming of a more cultural character. Yet, some organizations are more similar to ‘intermediaries’ offices’ for finding employment, and are charging for their services.

Hence, overall there is an issue of political idleness and social apathy of these three populations that does not appear to be positively influenced by their insertion into the EU and the rights that derive from it. The question of whether the lack of interest in public issues and the lack of faith in the collective organization and mobilization is still a residue of the communist past or it is ought to their course in Greece so far remains open. Indeed, if the first explanation was convincing for the 1990s, it sounds less satisfactory now, since a large proportion of the Bulgarians, Romanians and Polish citizens who live and work in the country at present, were young children or at most teenagers in 1989.

The issue of informing European citizens who reside in Greece, not only in Greek but also in their mother tongues, of their rights and obligations as well as the strengthening of their trust towards state institutions and collectivities (political parties, syndicates, civil society organizations) is also essential.

Such an information campaign will strengthen their position in the labor market allowing them to claim their lawful rights.   The role of the Labor Inspection offices appears to be crucial since they can contribute in practice to the implementation of the legislation. The fact that, according to the data of IKA (Greece’s largest insurance organization), the wages of Bulgarian, Romanian and Polish workers on average correspond to 60-70% to those of Greek workers also remains to be investigated. Are these practices of ethnic discrimination by employers or exploitation of their socially and financially vulnerable position?

Several hot issues regarding the social insurance of those groups need also careful consideration. For instance, the issue of pension rights and their transfer between member states. As things stand, Bulgarian workers who complete a minimum of 1 year of work in Greece can claim to receive their pension benefits from Greece rather than from Bulgaria, if they reside in the former. Given the vicinity of the two countries and the possibility to commute back and forth between some regions of northern Greece and Bulgaria, and the fact that even the minimum guaranteed pension in Greece (approximately 500 Euro) is higher than a good pension in Bulgaria, this appears as a very interesting option for Bulgarian citizens. While this possibility may be a vested right that derives from their EU citizen status, Greek public insurance bodies note the practical problems that stem from its implementation – notably the disproportionately heavy burden that may arise to the Greek welfare state. The overall feasibility of the transfer of pension rights between member states is in this case questioned and there are thoughts of imposing certain preconditions (e.g. the requirement of a longer period of work and welfare contributions in Greece).

In addition, a limited use of the health services by immigrant workers and their families that is related with their young age as well as problems of access to those services has been observed. These problems must be investigated (to understand better the causes of this limited use of public health services) and regulated as soon as possible.

The second part of the workshop focused on the study of the four largest migratory populations in Greece (after Albanians) from third countries. The first cases that were discussed were those of Ukrainian and Georgian citizens.

The Ukrainian population is mostly composed by women and shows an increased percentage of legal stay. Flows seem also to have stabilized. By contrast the Georgian population has been increasing in recent years. Our qualitative study also shows that a good part of this population is undocumented.  This fact is related to a large degree to the fact that many Georgians came to Greece after 2004 and hence have not had an opportunity to apply in the last two regularization programmes. In addition, the war between Georgia and Russia in 2008 contributed to emigration tendencies from the country and hence to the increase of immigration flows to Greece.

Georgians and Ukrainians are employed in the same sectors as Bulgarians and Romanians, specifically women in cleaning and personal care, catering and tourism and men in construction and other manual work but also services of catering and tourism. They also face similar problems of exploitation and flexibilisation of work relations. Even though these populations do need insurance stamps in order to renew their stay permits, often they end up paying those stamps out of their own pockets.

Here we have to note the positive character of the option of self-insurance with a minimum payment to IKA by workers in household care services and constructions due to lack of a steady employer and a work contract. This option allows the workers to keep their legal stay status, even though it often forces them to pay for all or part of their welfare stamps by themselves.  The issue put forward here is to what extend the excessive rigidness of the Greek labour market that protects almost immoderately a part of the working force (workers in the Greek public sector in particular and in parts of the private sectors), contributes to the flexibilisation of the labour market relations. In other words, it is the secondary labour market that bears all the costs of adaptation to changing economic conditions.

The question is asked: does the protection offered to those employed legally create a motive for employers to hire employees irregularly in order not to be bound by the relevant very strict and protective for the worker legislation? A lower level of protection for all would increase the competition and mobility in the labor market for all, but correspondingly it would give less reasons to employers to employ people without contracts or insurance. Would a more flexible labour law framework be paradoxically beneficial to the most vulnerable sections of the working force (and among them to immigrant workers?).

The issue of live-in work calls for special attention. The space and the type of domestic live-in work, in the good cases, is beneficial and desirable for both parties, however, in the bad cases can lead to extreme exploitation and violation of fundamental rights or even sexual harassment. The self-organization of live-in domestic workers appears to be a crucial factor here in improving their living and working conditions. Important is the part that governments of countries of origin can play in protecting particular category of workers.

Finally, several new issues were put forward that are in fact much discussed during the last few weeks with regard to two smaller immigrant groups, the Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis. First of all a difficulty to distinguish a refugee from an economic immigrant within this population is noted given that several regions is these countries are faced with civil strife and insecurity is widespread. It is also difficult to establish how many of the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who live in Greece today are transit migrants and how many intend to stay in the country. It is clear that they are subject to exploitation by Greek employers as well as their compatriots’ networks.

The issue of circuits of employment is a crucial question that needs further research, especially when taking into account the sectoral concentration of specific nationalities in specific jobs (e.g. Bangladeshis in small manufactures of clothing and restaurants in the centre of Athens, Pakistanis and Syrians in gas stations and car washes).  The labour market in these sectors is rather unregulated. The role of Labour Inspection offices here is very important as they can mediate between employers and migrant workers who do not dare to ask for overtime or weekend pay or even for the legal wage because they are afraid of losing their job. There is an issue here of ‘illegitimate’ competition since immigrant workers who wish to ask for their overtime pay hesitate to do so because they know that they can be fired at once and there are several unemployed immigrant workers waiting to take their position for even lower salaries or without insurance, simply for reasons of survival. Hence the regulation of the labour market is quite a delicate and complicated issue here.

The issue of family reunification is crucial for all the groups that we have studied (Ukrainians, Georgians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis). The demand of a relatively high income for the arrival of the wife/husband and the children makes family reunification almost impossible for most immigrants residing in the country.  There is also a question of whether this is a conscious policy of the Greek state that indirectly obstructs the right to family life in order to prevent the increase of cultural difference of the country’s inhabitants.

In conclusion, the role of Local Authorities, the Employment Inspection Offices, and the trade unions for immigrant integration into the Greek society and labour market under humane conditions is emphasised. There is a need for a new migration policy with a vision and direction towards the protection of immigrant workers that does not limit itself to a mere instrumental rationale (of collecting fees and insurance stamps without offering much in return). The issue of legality and the so called de-legalization (transition from a regular to irregular stay or employment) also remains crucial, especially in conditions of economic crisis where the pressure of employers for uninsured work and the competition for fewer jobs become acute. The disconnection of the stay permit renewal from the proof of work (through welfare stamps) henceforth becomes necessary for immigrants who have been living in the country legally for five years or more. In addition, several regulations with regard to the labour market and social insurance ought to become more flexible aiming at a more efficient protection of the workers and the dissuasion of irregular employment.

For the list of participants and their contact details see here

For more information on the relevant research results see here or communicate with Dr. Anna Triandafyllidou and Dr. Thanos Maroukis.